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Otago people at the Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night saw a vision of what the future could look like, writes Dunedin businessman Ian Taylor. But everyone will have to play their part.
Oh, what a night! If anyone needed evidence of the importance that rugby and the stadium have to the future of this city then you need look no further than Saturday night and the wonderful occasion that was The Highlanders v The Crusaders.
Beamed around the world to millions of viewers this was a real showcase of our rugby, our stadium and the people of Otago and Southland who delivered the largest Super 15 crowd in New Zealand during the weekend.
It therefore beggars belief that in the week leading up to this wonderful occasion we should be faced with the impending meltdown of the Otago Rugby Union.
But as people go looking for others to blame for the situation facing Otago Rugby, we would all be well advised to look into our own individual glasshouses before we start hurling stones- and let's start first with us - the fans.
We have stayed away in droves - and in the end those empty seats at Carisbrook have cost us dearly. I have always been amazed, and impressed, by fans of English football teams who are fans for life - no matter where their team goes, they go with them. From first division to 3rd - they are there. We are fickle fans - we only seem keen to support teams that win.
So for the 23,000 fans who turned up on Saturday - if we had lost would you be going back next weekend? If the ITM Otago Rugby teams future depended on us turning out in those numbers, even if they couldn't afford the big guns that turn out for the Highlanders, are we prepared to do that?
The future of rugby, indeed sport in general, in this area will depend on us doing what we did on Saturday. Perhaps this is our wake up call. It need not be the end - it could be the beginning of something special. It certainly felt that way on Saturday.
Perhaps we could become the Melbourne of New Zealand. Put on a snail race in Melbourne and they will turn up. As a result that city prospers and benefits from the way the sports fans turn out to support all codes. We already lead the country with the best little stadium in the universe,so let's make all of the sacrifice that has gone into building it count.
Now, to those who have managed Otago Rugby: you seem to have forgotten that, since rugby turned professional and became a business, your number one priority is your customers - your fan base. Alienate them and the money simply stops flowing. From ticket sales, from sponsors (because they too want to connect with the fans), from corporates and, ultimately, from TV. That's how the death spiral begins.
The people of this region have built you the finest stadium in the country, one of the best in the world, but it seems that you are unable to get your act together. Rumours of in fighting between Otago Rugby, the Highlanders, DVML, and the Council, if true, are of huge concern.
We deserve better than that. All egos should be left outside the door and you should all be working to come up with a solution that will make us care - win us back.
We also deserve better than being treated as a captive audience who will pay whatever prices are set for a beer, a pie, a sandwich. The experience needs to extend beyond the rugby field. Families need to be able to enjoy a night at the stadium as a great night out. Send them home feeling ripped off and you have lost them forever. Customer service 101.
Rugby, for better or worse, is now an entertainment product and you have the opportunity at this spectacular stadium that we built for you to set a new standard, to show the rest of the country, maybe even the world, what can be achieved when you treat your customers with the respect they deserve.
This is not a time to be doing things the way we always have - that is what has helped to create the mess we are in now. Now is the time to go outside the square and change things.
For example, why not make it easier for clubs from around the province to bring their families and members to the stadium by giving them areas where they can run their own barbies to feed their members, maybe even help them fund-raise? They do it in South Africa and it is a wonderful tradition. I hear you saying you can't do that because of your catering contracts - well, change them. An empty stadium with no rugby won't help the caterer one jot.
Let's work together to see what happens when you go journeying outside the box and put your customer first.
What about the New Zealand Rugby Union? You cannot continue with the hands-off approach that sees reserve benches at some of the top teams strong enough to deliver teams that could win the competition on their own. Ultimately, the product on show is yours and it begins from the grass roots up. It is easy to bathe in the glory of a World Cup win, to strut along the red carpet at awards dinners, but at what cost to the future? How many more World Cups will we win if provinces are left to languish, if the strength is allowed to accumulate in the hands of a few unions and you are not prepared to intervene to create a national product that delivers to everyone?
New Zealand is acknowledged as the greatest environment in the world for the development of rugby players and coaches, so you have a responsibility as well. An army of volunteers over the years has raised money, washed jerseys, cleaned up grounds, and driven hundreds of miles, to create the opportunities that can now help set you up for life. You are in demand in Japan, Europe the UK and many other places because of what these people have done, because of the environment they created to help you become what you are. You need to pay that back.
On Saturday you delivered us an evening to savour, with the quality of your rugby and the guts and spirit that you displayed, but what would it have taken to have done a lap of the stadium to acknowledge the 23,000 people who came out to support you?
There was a belated, half hearted jog down to the students in The Zoo, but nothing for the mums, dads and kids who came out to support you in the other stands which they packed to the gunnels.
Speaking of The Zoo, what a superb initiative that is. The stadium would have been a much quieter place and the experience far less rich without it and the pure joy that the students brought to the night. And therein lies another huge asset this city has when it comes to developing a sporting culture around the stadium. It is smack in the heart of the University precinct and, just as they used to do on the famed Carisbrook terraces, students can be relied on to bring a unique, Otago only, experience to events at the stadium.
So to conclude: for those who have doubted the value this stadium could bring to the city, you should have been there on Saturday. There is absolutely no doubt at all that on a cold and miserable night such as the one we experienced on Saturday the crowd would have been a fraction of what it was if the game had been played at dear old Brook.
The experience for those braving the elements in the open grandstands would have been truly miserable, even with the win, and the commercial spin-off to the city equally diminished.
Supporter of the stadium or not, it is here and that won't change. So let's take a lesson from Saturday night and work out how we ensure every night at the stadium is one like that and perhaps we will be able to make it pay its way.
The irony of the impending liquidation of the Otago Rugby Union is that it should come at a time when rugby stalwarts such as Kees Meeuws and Tony Brown had returned to inject some of the spirit and tradition we once so admired. When players like Ben Smith and Adam Thomson choose to stay in Dunedin rather than move north to seemingly greener fields and when we, the ratepayers, had delivered the perfect stadium for them to ply their trade.
On Saturday night we saw a vision of what the future could look like. Now we need to ensure that vision can be repeated. I am in no doubt that it will need new thinking and new attitudes but on Saturday you, the customer, the fan, played your part. Now its up to those who manage this game of ours to play theirs.
A small confession: On Saturday night The Highlanders came close to losing - or at least drawing - the game because the clock on the big screen did not match up with the official game clock.
That was our fault (Taylormade), as we are responsible for the running of the big screens. There were a number of technical reasons for this but they should have been addressed in advance. The buck stops with us, and I can assure you that there was no-one more relieved than I was to see that drop goal slide by the upright! It will not happen again.